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Forever Strong: The Lasting Appeal of Yakuza - Two Left Sticks
Yakuza

Forever Strong: The Lasting Appeal of Yakuza

The video game industry can, at times, be an unforgiven beast.  Some games and developers find success, while others can fall into obscurity quickly.  It’s interesting to see how certain titles have found success, especially considering the throng of genres such as sandbox games.  

Ryu Ga Gotoku has defied the odds over the years. Known as Yakuza in Western markets, the title was another attempt by Sega to explore the sandbox genre. Created by longtime Sega developer Toshihiro Nagoshi (Daytona USA, Super Monkey Ball), Yakuza was a step into uncharted territory amidst a market landscape dominated by GTA.

A gamble post the financial disappointment of Shenmue, Yakuza was a risk that paid off despite the high budget of $21 million.  So what exactly has made Yakuza one of Sega’s remaining franchise pillars for the last ten years?

THE ARRIVAL OF YAKUZA

In North America, Yakuza arrived near the end of the PS2’s lifecycle in 2006 and featured vocal performances from Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) and Mark Hamil (Star Wars).  These casting choices proved to be a distraction. The final product included questionable performances and localized dialogue laced with obscenities.

 

EXPLORING A NEW CULTURE

Yakuza didn’t find similar success in North America as it did in Japan. Despite not setting retail shelves ablaze, it managed to create a cult legion of fans. This was essentially due to one key thing: it offered players a new world.

Some titles miss out on the point of gaming in general – to transport players to a unique setting.  Developers will cater to what the market dictates, which results in a level of banality.  Players ultimately want something new, and Yakuza delivered that in spades. 

Yakuza
A screenshot of Yakuza: Kiwamni on the PS4.

A fictional version of the Shinjuku Ward in Japan, Kamurucho served as a gateway for players to explore a dense urban environment.  Compared to interpretations of New York’s gritty streets or the highways of Los Angeles, Kamurocho was literally unlike anything before in gaming.  Over the years, the Yakuza franchise has served as a way for players to enter a new world and culture.  Those two elements are paramount to why the series has become so successful for a decade.

Kamurucho was vibrant on the aging PlayStation 2, and it created an atmosphere which established a constant character.  And ultimately, who doesn’t like becoming a reformed gangster as they explore the nightlife and do the occasional street fight?

Not only was it interesting to see the inner workings, however, dramatized, of the Yakuza organization, but it was also fun to do simple things.  Yakuza allowed players to enter a hostess club, go to an arcade, and have an entirely new setting to explore. These elements not only helped immerse players into the overall experience but made the game into a cultural learning experience.

DRAMATIZED WITHIN REASON

For players in Japan, the Yakuza franchise simply allowed them to do what may otherwise be illegal to do; become a gangster badass.  While there is a glorification of the Yakuza in entertainment, the organization dabbles in crimes such as murder, extortion, and human trafficking.

Yakuza
A screenshot from Yakuza 5 on the PS3.

The Yakuza franchise has always done a proper balancing act between not depicting the organization as too glamorous. At the very least, the games provide a distinct tone which makes it one step removed from reality. This creative choice has allowed players, no matter their location, to channel a sense of their own personality, and do what gaming does best: allow players to take a break from reality.

HEIGHTENED REALITY

Simply put, the Yakuza series is one grand soap opera.  Yakuza provides players with drama, action, and silliness.  Things such as being able to lift a moped and use it as a weapon are elements which border on being unbelievable, yet Yakuza manages to add enough tangibility to be acceptable. 

As the years continued the Yakuza games have slowly offered elements which have been both comedic, and outright outlandish.  Even in these scenarios, which include witnessing a thief stealing women’s panties, the franchise never lost its identity. 

Additions like karaoke or managing a hostess club have become staples which separate Yakuza from other titles. Essentially, the sillier side of Yakuza serves as an amuse-bouche to the main course delivered by the development team.

 

REWARDING SUPPORT

Yakuza’s approach to narrative and game design are ultimately what gave the series such a dedicated fanbase.  Going to such great lengths as buying import copies or reading translated guides, fans have stuck with the franchise no matter the obstacle. 

Sega has certainly listened to the vocal fans as they’ve slowly localized the games, the next being Yakuza 0.  With such ardent fans, it’s clear that as long as Sega can support it, Yakuza will still exist in some form.  Despite a slow start, the Yakuza franchise has become a staple of gaming, and that’s a rarity these days.

Ian Fisher
A Chicago native, I'm a six year veteran of the game press industry with a deep passion for smaller indie games and all things Sony.

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